KYIV, Ukraine -- Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the occupied port city of Mariupol, his first trip to Ukrainian territory that Moscow illegally annexed in September and a show of defiance after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges.
Putin flew by helicopter from Crimea and then toured Mariupol, in Donetsk province in the east, according to the state news outlet Tass on Sunday. Mariupol was the site of one of the fiercest battles since Russia invaded Ukraine last year. The report from Tass referred to the stop as "a working trip" for Putin to review construction and restoration work in the city, which was once home to 500,000 people and Europe's largest steel plant.
It was Putin's second unannounced trip of the weekend to Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the closest the Russian leader has been to the front lines since the invasion last February. His trip Saturday to Crimea was timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of Russia's illegal annexation of the peninsula. The two high-profile visits were also defiant gestures from the Kremlin less than 48 hours after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest. The warrant claims that he bore individual criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children that has taken place since Russia's invasion last year.
Since the start of winter, both sides have been locked in a grinding battle for land in the east where the front line has barely moved, each army running short of ammunition and experiencing mounting casualties. Putin has shown no signs of easing up or heading to the negotiating table, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine has vowed to recapture all the territory that Russia grabbed, including Crimea.
So far, Ukraine has regained about half of that territory. And it has persuaded several of its allies in NATO to provide their most valuable weapons, including tanks, missiles, anti-missile systems and -- just last week -- fighter jets. As the war enters its second year, Putin has found himself further isolated, with a growing list of sanctions and great hurdles to selling his nation's gas and oil, which finance the war. It has prompted him to turn to Iran for weapons, including drones and missiles, and to Belarus, where he staged troops for last year's invasion and is doing the same for a new offensive. Putin was just in Belarus in December to visit President Alexander Lukashenko.
PUTIN TO MEET WITH XI
Mariupol became a worldwide symbol of resistance after outgunned and outmanned Ukrainian forces held out in a steel mill there for nearly three months before Moscow finally took control of it in May. Much of the city was pounded to rubble by Russian shelling.
Putin has not commented on the arrest warrant, which deepened his international isolation despite the unlikelihood of his facing trial anytime soon. The Kremlin, which does not recognize the authority of the ICC, has rejected its move as "legally null and void."
The surprise trip also came ahead of a planned visit to Moscow by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week, expected to provide a major diplomatic boost to Putin in his confrontation with the West.
In an essay published today in the People's Daily, the newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee, Putin said: "We are grateful for the balanced line (of China) in connection with the events taking place in Ukraine, for understanding their background and true causes. We welcome China's willingness to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis."
China in February released a position paper calling for an end to fighting in Ukraine and for upholding all countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity. It did not address how to resolve Russia's illegal claim to have annexed four regions of Ukraine.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told "Fox News Sunday" that any call for a cease-fire in Ukraine coming out of the Putin-Xi meeting would be unacceptable to the U.S. because it would only "ratify Russian's conquest to date," and give Moscow "time to refit, retrain, re-man and try to plan for a renewed offensive."
China has said the visit by Xi offers Beijing an opportunity to push Putin to peace talks and has hinted that a call with Zelenskyy could follow. But the United States has argued that China is not an honest broker and is providing Russia with much-needed supplies for the war, accusations that China has denied and that have helped drive relations between the two powers to the lowest in decades.
Putin arrived in Mariupol and then drove himself around the city's "memorial sites," concert hall and coastline, Russian news reports said. The state Rossiya 24 channel on Sunday showed Putin chatting with locals outside what looked like a newly built residential complex, and being shown around one of the apartments.
Following his trip to Mariupol, Putin met with Russian military leaders and troops at a command post in Rostov-on-Don, a southern Russian city about 112 miles farther east, and conferred with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who is in charge of the Russian military operations in Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Peskov said the trip had been unannounced, and that Putin intended to "inspect the work of the (command) post in its ordinary mode of operation."
Speaking to the state RIA-Novosti agency, Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin made clear that Russia was in Mariupol to stay. He said the government hoped to finish the reconstruction of its blasted downtown by the end of the year.
"People have started to return. When they saw that reconstruction is underway, people started actively returning," Khusnullin told RIA.
Mykhailo Podolyak, chief of staff for Zelenskyy, heaped scorn on Putin's trip to Mariupol.
"The criminal is always drawn to the crime scene," he said. "While the countries of the civilized world are announcing the arrest of the 'war director' in the event of crossing the border, the organizer of the murders of thousands of Mariupol families came to admire the ruins of the city and mass graves."
When Moscow fully captured the city in May, an estimated 100,000 people remained, out of a prewar population of 450,000. Many were trapped without food, water, heat or electricity. Relentless bombardment left rows of shattered or hollowed-out buildings.
Mariupol's plight first came into international focus with a Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital on March 9, 2022, less than two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine began. A week later, about 300 people were reported killed in the bombing of a theater being used as the city's largest bomb shelter. Evidence obtained by The Associated Press suggested the real death toll could be closer to 600.
A small group of Ukrainian fighters held out for 83 days in the sprawling Azovstal steel works in eastern Mariupol before surrendering, their dogged defense tying down Russian forces and coming to symbolize Ukrainian tenacity in the face of Moscow's aggression.
Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, a move that most of the world denounced as illegal, and moved in September to officially claim four regions in Ukraine's south and east as Russian territory, following referendums that Kyiv and the West described as a sham.
The ICC on Friday accused Putin of bearing personal responsibility for the abductions of children from Ukraine. U.N. investigators also said there was evidence for the forced transfer of "hundreds" of Ukrainian children to Russia. According to Ukrainian government figures, over 16,000 children have been deported to Russian-controlled territories or Russia itself, many of them from Mariupol.
While the ICC's move was welcomed by Kyiv, the chances of Putin facing trial are slim because Moscow does not recognize the court's jurisdiction or extradite its nationals.
Ukrainian officials reported Sunday that at least three civilians had been killed and 19 wounded by Russian shelling in the previous 24 hours. The deaths were in the eastern Donetsk region, amid fierce battles for control of the city of Bakhmut, according to Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko on Ukrainian TV.
Kharkiv regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said in a Telegram update that a 51-year-old woman was "fighting for her life" after being hit by shrapnel as Russian troops fired on the border town of Dvorichna.
Top Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak said Ukrainian troops were holding the line near Bakhmut, a key target of a long, grinding Russian offensive, adding that the enemy's plan to occupy the city "are now foundering."
The spokesman for Ukraine's eastern forces said Russian troops are "tactically unable to complete" Bakhmut's capture.
"Yes, there are very active battles, [the Russians] continue to carry out several dozen attacks by inertia, but they suffer huge losses," Serhii Cherevaty said on Ukrainian TV, adding that Ukrainian defenses are "bleeding the enemy, breaking his fighting spirit."
Taking Bakhmut would give the Kremlin a battlefield victory after months of setbacks, and could pave the way for Russia to threaten other Ukrainian strongholds in the region, including Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.
Russian forces shelled a house in Bilozerka, a suburb west of the southern city of Kherson, and a woman who was pulled from the rubble was hospitalized, according to the Kherson regional military administration, writing on Telegram.
Information for this article was contributed by Karl Ritter of The Associated Press and by Andres R. Martinez of The New York Times.
Gallery: Putin visits occupied Ukraine